Champs Finding Their Stride At Right Time

Heading into the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils are playing well enough to bring in thoughts of Houston.

Defending champs rediscover their form in ACC tourney The Blue Devils departed the ACC tournament with renewed energy and confidence.

"We had mentally checked out for a little bit," guard Nolan Smith said.

In coach Mike Krzyzewski's eyes, the Blue Devils had been working hard but didn't have a spark. That was rekindled in the conference tournament

"There was just a really good spirit," he said. "It's not like we had bad attitudes, but there was a newness."

The Blue Devils take that edge to the NCAA Tournament, where they're defending champions. They're the No. 1 seed in the West Region, though they'll start play in-state with an opening game against Hampton in Charlotte.

In order to keep the momentum going, the Blue Devils will want to maintain all of their active parts. Duke's rotation of post players with Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly seemed to work well during the ACC tournament, as they all were productive. They combined to shoot 11-for-16 from the field in the tournament final win over North Carolina.

"This week with this team, everybody just came to play," Smith said. "We played defense and shared the ball and played offense outstanding."

Duke heads to the NCAA Tournament with a 12-game winning streak in postseason tournament play, with six ACC Tournament wins (three last season, three this year) and six NCAA Tournament victories last year en route to the title.

--Duke has won its last five ACC tournament meetings with North Carolina, though Sunday's title-game victory was only the second matchup in a 10-year period and the first meeting in the finals since 2001. In finals meetings with the Tar Heels, Duke improved to 5-6 against its rival.

--With freshman G Kyrie Irving working out prior to Duke games in the ACC tournament, there will be more speculation about his possible return to action. Duke officials have generally rebuffed that speculation, but now it appears that Irving is getting closer to playing condition. He hasn't played since early December. Extensive workouts in a swimming pool have aided the Irving's recovery.

"If we were a water polo team, he would have played (Sunday)," coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

COACH: Mike Krzyzewski, 31st year at Duke, 27th year in NCAA Tournament, four national championships.

KEYS TO VICTORY: Duke needs to receive production from senior G Nolan Smith and senior F Kyle Singler because most of its offense runs through the two of them. But more balance surfaced during the ACC tournament, as six different players reached double-digit scoring in at least one game, while sophomore G Andre Dawkins provided nine points twice. The Blue Devils will want to show a little better consistency at the free-throw line, as other than Smith's 7-for-7 effort, the team of the team combined to go 1-for-8 in the ACC tournament final against North Carolina.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "As much as Nolan did offensively, I thought his defense is what made him MVP for this tournament." -- Coach Mike Krzyzewski, on G Nolan Smith, who added ACC tournament MVP honors to his season that already included an ACC Player of the Year award.


GAME PREVIEW vs. Hampton, March 18, NCAA Tournament second round

KEY MATCHUPS: Duke is clicking again after a solid three-game run through the ACC tournament, so the Blue Devils will be keen on maintaining that level of play in their NCAA Tournament opener. The game will be played in North Carolina's home state of Charlotte, but with rival North Carolina assigned to the venue as well, there's no guarantee that there will be overwhelming support of the Blue Devils. Duke tends to do well at putting away overmatched opponents, and that will be the goal in this one. The Blue Devils will want to use their size advantage on the interior because that's an area that they started to benefit from during the ACC tournament.

SCOUTING REPORT: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski always hints that he's concerned about these lower-seeded teams because they have winning mentalities based on the fact that they're coming off winning a conference tournament. Duke will have the better talent and the better experience compared to Hampton, so as long as the Blue Devils don't give Hampton something to get excited about, they should be in good shape. Duke and Hampton played about a half-hour's drive apart during the past weekend in their respective conference tournaments because the ACC event was held in Greensboro and the MEAC was contested in Winston-Salem.

--Sophomore G Andre Dawkins hit three of four shots from 3-point range against North Carolina in the ACC tournament final. Dawkins has seen his role fluctuate in recent weeks, and he averaged less than 15 minutes of playing time per game in the ACC tournament. He shot 3-for-10 on 3-pointers in the first two games combined during the tournament. All nine of his points in the final came in the first half; he played only two minutes in the second half.

--Freshman G Tyler Thornton has gone back to being a nonfactor in the backcourt rotation. After playing five minutes in the ACC tournament opener against Maryland, he logged a combined one minute in the other two games. He's mostly relied on for a defensive spark, though he held a role in the starting lineup for three games earlier this winter.

--Sophomore F Ryan Kelly raised his season scoring average to 6.7 points per game by averaging nearly 10 points per game (29 points in three games) during the ACC tournament. His baseline 3-pointer in the final against North Carolina turned back a potential Tar Heels rally and rebuilt Duke's lead to 13 points with less than five minutes to play.

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